By Army Spc. Stephanie Cassinos
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 2, 2009 - Soldiers here visited students in a unique learning environment last month to drop off school supplies, treats and even guitars. The students of St. Efram Elementary School, eager to make the soldiers feel at home, performed a couple of classics in English, including "Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" and the English alphabet. Bishop Imad Al Banna, the acting bishop of Basra, explained that St. Efram is one of two kindergartens in the country sponsored by the Chaldean Church to combine children of mixed religions in one learning environment.
"They are the future and hope of Iraq," Banna said of the children. "It's very important that they grow together with peace, love and good ideas."
By learning together, children of mixed religions and backgrounds set the groundwork for a generation that is more accepting of its own cultural differences, the bishop explained.
"When you teach children together, they learn to become one nation," he said. "They learn more about their country and culture and become united. They learn to love and serve by love and not war."
As Iraq continues to develop and progress in spite of decades of oppression, violence and religious conflict, Banna noted, there is more to building a nation than material endeavors.
"We now understand how to build bridges and hospitals," he said. "Now, we need to understand how to build the human."
St. Efram accomplishes this by introducing its culturally diverse students to a variety of subjects, including art, math, science, music, English, Arabic and other languages. The mixed-gender classes include children from Muslim, Christian and Sabean families. Many former students have gone on to pursue college-educated careers, such as medicine and engineeringm, and now their children are following in their footsteps.
"When they get out, they always have higher grades, because they begin their education early," Banna said.
Although enrollment is high, St. Efram lacks the classrooms and staff to accommodate all who apply. This year, 250 families wanted to register their children, but the school could admit only 165 students. The other school, Albeshera, has 190 students.
Many impoverished families live in the area and cannot afford to pay tuition, but because some families are able to pay more, the community and church can provide needy children with the opportunity for an early education.
"In the future, when these children know someone cared for them, they will care for others," Banna said. "It will build the love."
(Army Spc. Stephanie Cassinos serves in Multinational Division South.)